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Battle against institutional racism in science

Research-funding organizations struggle to meet commitments to combat discrimination

Jon Feingersh Photography Inc / Getty Images

In 2020, London-based charitable science foundation the Wellcome Trust launched a program to combat racism and increase diversity both among its own staff and the researchers to whom it awards funding. The move came after the charity acknowledged that its actions in the past had contributed to “perpetuating structural racism” in the scientific system. Two years later, in August, it released an independent assessment of the initiative’s work to date, the results of which have proven limited and disappointing.

“We have fallen short of commitments made to colleagues and to the research community. As a consequence of us not doing more and not acting sooner, Wellcome remains an institutionally racist organisation,” said British immunologist Jeremy Farrar, director of the trust. “Wellcome has played and continues to play a role in sustaining racism both in its own operations and in the wider research sector. I am sorry for the actions and inactions behind this and the hurt and disappointment these have caused.” The director announced new measures to address the problem, such as the creation of a funding stream dedicated to scientists of color and the adoption of a new criterion for distributing funds: when multiple proposals have similar merits, the final decision will take into account the importance of increasing the diversity of researchers funded by the trust. Last year, Wellcome invested US$1.4 billion in health studies.

The report shows that few advances were made, and those identified were situational. The number of people of color among the charity’s staff of 1,800 increased, but not in leadership positions. “The lack of diversity within leadership and management is seen by staff as a key impediment to progress,” the document states. The institution’s two main approaches—training and the creation of a tool kit to help identify and curb the effects of racism—successfully drew attention to the problem but had no measurable positive impacts over the period. Twenty percent of staff identifying as people of color reported having experienced racist or classist comments. In March, an external anti-racism expert advisory group hired by Wellcome collectively resigned, unhappy with how slowly the program was being implemented.

Binuraj Menon, a chemist from the University of Warwick, told the magazine Chemistry World the report was “a grim read” that demonstrates the trust’s failure to promote inclusion. “Even after two years, there is still a lack of strategies for addressing Wellcome’s massive funding disparities. In 2019/2020, no awards were given by Wellcome to UK applicants who identified as Black,” Menon said. Only 8% of proposals submitted by UK-based Black, Asian, and minority ethnic scientists were approved, compared to 14% obtained by white applicants. According to the researcher, ingrained prejudice and a lack of actions addressing discrimination are among the main reasons why the UK’s chemistry community remains predominantly white.

The report and apology from the charity’s director were well received. “The issues encountered with Wellcome are not unusual,” Addy Adelaine, an inclusion specialist and leader of the nonprofit Ladders4Action in Inverclyde, Scotland, told the journal Nature. “What’s different is that Wellcome now seems to be embracing honest discussion and action.”

The debate about structural racism in science is not new, but it gained momentum in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Since then, universities and funding agencies in many countries have begun adopting measures to confront the problem. In February, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine acknowledged that it had been unable to implement effective policies to combat prejudice towards minorities after an investigative commission analyzed official data and heard from staff and students. Two-thirds of white staff members who applied for associate professor positions between 2017 and 2020 were successful, compared with one-third of non-white applicants (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 312).

The US National Science Foundation (NSF), the country’s leading research-funding agency for basic science, has also faced criticism related to discrimination in funding. A study published as a preprint in July, led by geochemist Christine Yifeng Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA, analyzed data from more than one million proposals considered by the NSF between 1996 and 2006. Success rates fluctuated between 22% and 34% over the period depending on the funds available and the number of applications, but white scientists did better in general. The most recent data from 2019 show that 31.3% of proposals submitted by white researchers were awarded funding. The success rate was 22.4% for Asians, 26.5% for Black scientists, and 29% for Latinos. A copy of the study was sent to NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan, who did not dispute the findings. “The agency shares these concerns about systemic racial disparities in funding at NSF and other federal agencies,” a spokesperson for the institution told the journal Science.

The US-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a report on its inclusion policies in April, detailing its progress and the obstacles it faces. “Our workforce has become more diverse, but we need to make our talent recruitment and hiring practices more inclusive and equitable.” “Employees say leaders have expressed a strong commitment to diversity, but that this often does not translate into action.” The authors of the document collected data on microaggressions, which include disrespect, hostility, and derogatory comments towards staff members, whether intentional or not, related to their ethnicity or social group. One in four employees said they had experienced microaggressions in the workplace in the previous 12 months. Leslie Mays, director of the foundation, announced the adoption of a new learning and development curriculum for staff.